We are often asked about Gravatars, and whether they are worth having. Here is our take on what Gravatars are, how they differ from avatars, and why you should consider having one.
What is a Gravatar?
Gravatar is short for ‘globally recognised avatar’. An avatar is an image that represents an individual on the internet. It may be a photograph of the individual, or of something else (your cat, perhaps), or an image you like, or a logo, or even a cartoon. Avatars are said to have originated in the early days of the web, as a way to identify individuals in a semi-anonymous world. They are still favoured by gamers for this purpose.
A Gravatar is a particular image assigned to your email address by Gravatar, a free service originally set up by Tom Preston-Warner and now owned and run by Automattic. You choose the image, and upload it to Gravatar, and Gravatar does the rest.
How does Gravatar work?
When you register with Gravatar, you link an email address to a particular image. When you use your email address to comment on a website that uses the plug-in for Gravatar—which is most blogging sites—the site checks against the Gravatar servers. It then automatically adds your image to your comment. Hey presto! Instant recognition, and an identity that moves with you from site to site as you comment and engage on the web.
If you own or run a website with comments, you can add the plug-in from Gravatar so that your site recognises other people’s Gravatars. Our brains find it easier to remember images than words, so this will help you recognise and respond to your key contributors.
Are there disadvantages to having a Gravatar?
There are concerns about the security of the process used by Gravatar to supply the image. The system works by providing a mash-up of the email address associated with your image, and it is fairly easy to hack it backwards and work out the email address. One test found that over 10% of forum users’ email addresses could be obtained by combining their Gravatar urls with their forum user names. Another hacked around 45%. This potentially exposes you to having your email address identified. That, in turn, means that you could get a lot of spam. It is also possible that someone could work out which sites you are visiting—but that’s kind of the point about Gravatar anyway.
The main thing you can do to manage this is keep work and personal life separate. Use your Gravatar with a specific work-related email address, and build your brand. If you are visiting and commenting on forums for personal purposes, use a different email address, and don’t use a Gravatar. If you have a gmail account, there is a feature that allows you to add ‘+anything’ after your name and still receive emails (for example, firstname.lastname@example.org will still be delivered to email@example.com). Use this feature to give you a different email address for all websites you register with for personal purposes. Using a long string after the + sign makes it harder to hack.
So, should I have a Gravatar?
The answer to whether it is worth having a Gravatar is a resounding yes.
First, it’s free. You don’t need to do anything very complicated, just provide an image, and your usual email address. If you have more than one email address that you use for different purposes., you can associate them with the same or different images—or keep one separate for personal use.
Second, having a Gravatar is very good for your personal brand and image. Your Gravatar follows you around the internet, letting you build up a brand through your comments. Commenting is an important part of engaging with others, because it shows that you are prepared to listen and respond, as well as provide information. A Gravatar is even more useful if you use the same image as you use for your profile picture on your own social media channels, such as LinkedIn or Medium, because it links your comments with your own posts.
The bottom line
If you are engaging on digital channels, and especially if you are commenting on other people’s writing and blogs for thought leadership purposes, then you really ought to have a Gravatar. It will make you more recognisable and help you to build your brand image, at the cost of just the time required to register for the service.